New underage-drinking law aims to change perceptions, save lives

The most important benefit of a new law on underage drinking is its educational effect, says a student who helped write it.

The law, which takes effect Thursday, provides a limited shield from prosecution for underage drinkers who call 911 seeking help for themselves or a friend.

Police had already followed a practice of declining to prosecute young drinkers who called emergency services because they thought a friend's life was in danger, said Matt Forstie, a University of Minnesota student and chair of the Minnesota Student Legislative Coalition. The bigger problem, he said, was that a large number of students admitted they would hesitate to call 911 in such situations.

"Being college students, we see this problem of hesitation to call 911in these situations as being prevalent in our community," he said, "and we had data to back that up. There was a survey done by the University of Minnesota that found somewhere around 15 percent of college students, when asked if they would call 911 if they couldn't wake someone who had been drinking, said they would be unlikely to call. ... We saw that as quantitative backing for a problem that we had seen with our eyes and ears."

"We're trying to change a perception problem," Forstie said on The Daily Circuit. "Someone's health and safety is always more important than whatever consequences might come later."

"This change in the law will do one thing," he said. "It says, if you call 911 in good faith for a medical emergency, you will not receive prosecution for underage drinking if you're the person that calls 911, if you're the person that receives medical attention as a result of that call, or there's some language that allows for one or two other people that were assisting in the situation of stayed on the scene to receive immunity as well."

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But to qualify for the law's protection, Forstie pointed out, underage drinkers have to meet certain conditions.

"They have to stay on the scene, they have to cooperate with the authorities on the scene, and they have to provide their name to the authorities," he said. "So that really makes sure that those people who are calling 911 for that medical emergency are doing it in good faith."

If, on the other hand, a young drinker calls 911 and then flees, he or she is technically in danger of prosecution — or would be, if the police were not already lenient in such cases, Forstie said.

"We want to make sure that people make the call," he said. "Changing the law is only the start of what we need to do here. We want to educate the public ... First of all, the message is, when someone's health is in question, always call 911, but the second part of that message is, educating young people especially on what signs to look for that might indicate someone's life is in danger."

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 5,000 drinkers under the age of 21 die from alcohol-related causes each year.